Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42, RSV
When you read this passage, the meaning seems obvious, because Jesus apparently spells it out for us: Martha, you are anxious and troubled by too many things, Mary has chosen the better part. So everyone should stop being like Martha, and getting worried and distracted, and start being more like Mary, and sitting and listening to God. Pretty straightforward, right? But if that’s true and the lesson here is to be more like Mary, then you can all pat yourselves on the backs because you’ve already accomplished it this morning. You’ve shown up here at church willing to listen, listen to the scripture, the music, the prayers, (hopefully the sermon…) So congratulations, we’ve all proved we can be like Mary and sit and listen. Unfortunately, patting ourselves on the backs is rarely where the Spirit wants to lead us, so I have this theory that it’s not Mary we should try to be like, but Martha, the apparent villain, who is ultimately our hero.
Last week, you may recall, we had the parable of the Good Samaritan, and immediately following that passage, today we meet Martha, who has done exactly what Jesus was talking about in that parable, she has encountered someone on the road, a traveling stranger, an “alien,” to use the terminology of Hebrew Scripture, which is one of the groups along with widows and orphans that Martha knows as a person of faith that she has an obligation to assist, and she treats this alien, Jesus, as a neighbor and invites him into her home. And more than that, she does this even though it means stepping outside of her societal role because a woman inviting a man into her home was not something that was done. But after making this remarkably bold move, she steps right back into what society expects of her and apparently runs off to do the dishes. Which wouldn’t be so bad except that as a result of her stress about getting her work done, she then focuses that stress on her sister, and bad-mouths her to Jesus: look at that woman not doing what she is supposed to do! Because Mary, instead of attending to the chores that would be her obligation as a woman, has stepped outside of her role just like her sister did right before her, and has gone off with the men to listen to the Master’s teachings. Martha, instead of nurturing this inquisitive and free-spirited side of her sister, lets her stress turn to anger, and lashes out. So Martha has not only given up the power she just recently exercised herself, she’s become mean-spirited and resentful about it, and she wants to trample on another woman for seizing her own power.
But what Martha doesn’t know yet is that later she is going to be called to a ministry of reconciliation, and in this passage, Jesus starts to wake her up to this. Notice how Jesus addresses her, repeating her name, “Martha, Martha….” a tender form of speech on Jesus’ part, which he will also use later in Luke when he says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets.” (NRSV 13:34a) He loves Jerusalem, he receives a triumphal welcome there, yet he knows the people of Jerusalem will reject the one they just celebrated. And this is exactly what Martha has just done, she’s gone out of her way to invite this great teacher into her home, yet hasn’t listened to a word he has said.
And don’t we all do that with Jesus? Every single one of us here at some point has made a decision for Jesus: baptism, confirmation, or even today, you made a decision to come here and listen, to learn more. We asked Jesus into our lives because our deepest desire is to be transformed–but it’s also our deepest fear. So we say welcome, Jesus, glad you’re here–now sit over there while I just stress out for a while. I’m worried about paying the bills, feeding the kids, cleaning the house, and on and on. And our stress and our anxieties turn into anger and resentment. Like Martha, we distract ourselves with many things instead of focusing on the one needful thing. Because to focus on the one thing, to focus on Jesus, would mean we might actually have to change something about how we live our lives, and we will resist that every step of the way; we’re willing to do what Mary does and sit and listen, but not much more.
But the good news is, if we look at Martha’s reappearance in John’s gospel, in the story of the raising of her brother, Lazarus, we do see Martha transform. In today’s reading from Luke, Martha welcomes Jesus into her home, then ignores him and tries to keep her sister away from him as well; but in the later episode recounted in John’s Gospel, Martha goes out to meet Jesus, who is no longer an alien, now a friend, confronts him about why he didn’t come earlier to save her brother from death–Martha is certainly not shy in either Gospel–but then she embraces Jesus fully and whole-heartedly as her Messiah. She reconciles herself to Jesus, returns home, and then sends her sister out to Jesus to also be reconciled. Martha has gone from trying to keep Mary away from Jesus, to actively sending her towards Jesus, and you may remember how this episode ends, Jesus resurrects Martha’s and Mary’s brother from the dead in front of their own eyes. They are witness to a miracle, but only after they have been reconciled with their friend, Jesus.
Martha has taken the journey from, “Jesus, look at my sister, I don’t like what she’s doing,” to instead turning towards her sister and saying to her, “Jesus is calling for you, go to him.” We can make that same journey. We all have people in our lives that we think, “They are the problem!” whether it’s in our personal lives or non-specific people out there that we want to kick out of the country or keep from enjoying the same access and benefits we have to things like health care or a living wage. Maybe Jesus is trying to wake us up as he did Martha to a ministry of reconciliation with these very same people that we don’t like or that we get angry at.
Anyone who has been following the news or even the vicious back-and-forths on social media knows that we are living in times begging for reconciliation. We seem to be divided on everything from race to gun violence and beyond. But if simply looking around doesn’t convince you that working for reconciliation is critical for our lives, for each and every one of us in this church right now, you could check the prayer book: p. 855 of the Catechism gives as one of the four areas of ministry for all laypersons “to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.” Reconciliation is not a practice reserved for do-gooders, although there are many good reasons to do it: political, relational, and psychological–it’s one of the foundations of ministry for all of us. So whether you feel called to be an instrument of reconciliation out there in the world, which sorely needs it, or in your own family, which might need it as well, this is work that you must be called to. We are people of faith and we have an obligation to assist others. Because if Christians–specifically mandated to do this–if we do not lead the way in reconciling our fighting brothers and sisters with each other, who will?
This passage is not about passively sitting at the feet of Jesus as much as it is about reconnecting with what inspired us, like Martha, to actively invite Jesus in in the first place. When you catch yourself being stressed out, troubled by many things, worried–rejoice. God is calling you, you are just like our hero today, Martha. That very anxiety and those distractions are simply misdirected passion, misdirected love, and if you feel stress or anger or resentment, today you are called by Jesus to a ministry of reconciliation, to and for all those people and things that are stressing you out. And if you listen to that call, like Martha, who witnessed with her own eyes, the resurrection of one she thought dead, you, too, will be the witness to miracles.
Based on a sermon given July 17, 2016, at Church of the Angels, Pasadena